I still remember one of my first varsity basketball games in high school. I was a freshman and I was sitting near the end of the bench. I was on the JV team all year, but by January I started to practice with the varsity and after my JV games I would join the varsity squad, most of the time spent at the end of the bench. At the time, I was very proud. I had worked extremely hard and I felt rewarded by getting some varsity time. I hardly ever played meaningful minutes, but I knew I’d have to wait my turn.

One of those first few games of waiting my turn was against the very competitive division rival Lakewood High School. They were considered the best team in Ocean County, led my some tough seniors, one of which was going to the University of Miami the following year for football. They were far and beyond the most athletic team we would play all year. Even more impressive than the seniors, however, was a young player on the team named JR Smith. Only a sophomore at the time, it was obvious that he was special on the court. He just looked different than everyone else, but in a good yet intimidating way. No tattoos at the time, he was 6’5″, lean, and had the look of a true player.

I still remember his dunk from the right baseline in front of our bench. One of his teammates took a shot from the other side of the court, missed, and as it sailed over the rim towards our side of the court, JR timed it perfectly, caught it with two hands and threw it down. It’s not the kind of play you see every day in the Shore Conference, especially from a sophomore. After the dunk, JR barely reacted. He just flushed it and ran back on defense. Soon after, he effortlessly nailed a deep 3. After that game, I knew I’d be hearing about him for the next few years.

He would go on to become 1st team All-County that season, which put his name on the local map. The following year, he was considered to be the best player in the Shore and played well enough to prove it. We had a tough team that year as well, and as my first year as a starting point guard, we (Monsignor Donovan) were able to share a piece of the division with his Lakewood squad. But JR had bigger plans. Instead of coming back for his senior year and dominating the Shore Conference, he transferred to St. Benedict’s in north Jersey, where he could play for an extra year, which would help him develop to become a better player with chances of being recruited by the best schools.

One day in the summer before my senior year, I read in the paper that JR committed to UNC. I couldn’t believe it. I knew he was good, but I never considered he was that good. Usually the best players from the Shore go to schools like Monmouth or Bucknell or maybe a mid-major school (no disrespect to those 2 kids at Point Beach this year), so it was a shock to see someone go to what’s considered one of the top programs in the country. However, later that year he would be a member of the McDonald’s All American game, in which the country’s best high school players compete at the end of the season. While there were quite a few eventual quality NBA players, JR stood out the most. He had a game-high 25 points, including NBA-range 3 pointers and a 360-dunk, showing off both his beautiful jumpshot and his athleticism, and was named co-MYP with Dwight Howard. His stock was suddenly rising near the top of NBA draft boards. It wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that he would change his decision and instead enter the ensuing NBA Draft. He would never play a minute of college basketball.

I’ll never say that a high school player doesn’t deserve the right to enter the NBA and make the promised million$, but looking at players like JR makes you wonder if things would be different had he gone to college.

I understand that he was a guaranteed first round pick, that he would make millions of dollars right away, and that he’d avoid the risk of going to college and getting injured or even worse, forgotten about. But do you think he’d be making the kinds of mistakes he’s still making today if he grew up a little on his own time, instead of on an NBA team? During the age of the prep-to-pros era (1995-2005), people were quick to assume that these kids could handle anything that came their way, just because they were better at basketball than other high school kids. But they were all still high school kids. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older now (only 28, but still), but I can’t imagine myself joining a professional team full of grown ass men, traveling by plane from state to state on a nightly basis, right after my senior year of high school. I needed to learn some responsibility, which would be earned through years of boring classes, vigorous and tedious practices, long road trips, good wins and bad losses, and drinking lots of beers from time to time. Granted, I didn’t potentially have millions of dollars like JR and other prep talents alike had, but the amount of growing up that occurs during the college years can’t be valued enough. I know there are plenty of professionals that enter their field at an early age and amount to huge success, but they are the lucky ones.

Nevertheless, JR is certainly no NBA bust or charity case. Up to this point, he’s had a solid career, earning millions of dollars and averaging 13 points over his 9 years in the NBA, including last year when he averaged 18 points and went on to be named the league’s 6th Man of the Year. I knew he’d be a good fit last year when he was traded to the Knicks. The Garden loves any player who can light it up from deep or a guy with limitless athleticism. JR would provide the fans with both, through the good times and the bad.

From a financial standpoint, JR has been very successful. But there’s a price for everything, and it seems as if JR has no limit on what he’ll pay for. Since his time in the NBA, he has been suspended for a fight and drugs, has had multiple ridiculous internet ‘incidents,’ has been responsible for a fellow passenger’s life, and most recently, fined $50,000 for untying opponents’ shoes, twice. To no one’s surprise, he ‘apologized’ through twitter, stating:

‘‏@TheRealJRSmith 8 Jan
Huge apologies to my team, to the league an most of all you the fans! #JRSmithSigningOff’

Maybe JR would have been the same guy he is today had he gone to college, but maybe he wouldn’t. We can’t rewind life and have a look, as we all know. Yet I can’t help but think of JR Smith when he was just 15 years old, clean-cut, innocent, with a whole life ahead of him. Looking at him today, it seems as if fame was his biggest price to pay. It’s too bad we never got to see him grow up, even if he still is.

I hope nothing but the best for JR, because I still see him as that 15 year old kid trying to prove himself. Plus, he’s from Jersey.

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